- A new report from WWF shows that trade in protected wild animals and their body parts in Myanmar via the social media platform Facebook rose by 74% in 2021 compared to the previous year.
- The scale of the online trade, the purpose of the trade, and the species seen in the trade are all of major concern in terms of impacts on biodiversity and the potential risks to public health from disease transfer, according to the report.
- Posts advertising live civets and pangolins as wild meat, as well as posts referring to their commercial breeding potential are a particular concern, argue the report authors. Both species are considered to be potential vectors in passing zoonotic diseases to humans.
- The report calls on online platforms to do more to monitor their platforms and take swift action, and for greater involvement and collaboration from multiple sectors to strengthen enforcement, disrupt the illegal wildlife trade, and increase awareness of the health risks posed by illegally traded wildlife.
Amid lockdowns, travel restrictions and wet market closures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, wildlife traders shifted their business online. A trade once dominated by face-to-face interactions now sees sellers and buyers chat via social media, conduct mobile banking transactions, and deliver live animals or their parts by courier — often without fear of legal repercussions.
New research from WWF shows that this trend has taken root in Myanmar. The report, based on monitoring in the Southeast Asian country during 2021, shows that trade in protected wild animals and their body parts via Facebook is escalating.
Beyond the impact of the trade on the country’s biodiversity, the report highlights the risks to public health from the trade of several high-risk species, namely civets and pangolins, that are considered to be potential vectors in passing zoonotic, or animal-borne, diseases to humans. It also lays out the mechanisms that facilitate the trade and presents possible ways to curb it.
“With Asia’s track record as a breeding ground for many recent zoonotic diseases, this sharp uptick in online trade of wildlife in Myanmar is extremely concerning,” said Shaun Martin, WWF regional lead on illegal wildlife trade cybercrime and report co-author.
Martin added that despite widespread knowledge of the biodiversity crisis and the lessons learned over the past few years about the virus spillover risk inherent in the wildlife trade, evidence shows that animals are being kept in confined and unsanitary conditions — sometimes with more than one species to a cage; wild meat is in hot demand; and critically endangered species are being openly sold in Facebook groups.
“The findings suggest that the online wildlife trade is largely immune to Myanmar’s upheavals, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which inflicted a particularly devastating toll on Myanmar in 2021,” the report says. Furthermore, sweeping internet restrictions imposed by authorities following a military coup in early 2021, including a ban on Facebook, have been largely circumvented by users.
Threatened species in trade
WWF researchers trawled Facebook groups and posts from Myanmar in 2021, searching for transactions that featured species protected under the country’s 2018 Conservation of Biodiversity and Protected Areas Law or listed under CITES, the international treaty to protect wildlife from harmful international trade.
The results showed a 74% increase in the number of wildlife items advertised for sale online compared to 2020, reflected in a 69% increase in the number of traders operating in the country. In total, 11,046 wildlife items were identified from 173 different species. These included six species listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, such as Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), Chinese pangolins (Manis pentadactyla) and Asian giant tortoises (Manouria emys). Other traded species included elephants, bears and gibbons, and parrots, parakeets and hornbills.
Most of the animals (87%) had been sourced from the wild. While birds accounted for three-quarters of posts, sales of live mammals and their body parts saw the greatest growth, increasing by 241% from the previous year. Elephant skins and ivory products featured in the trade for the first time, and more live bears and their parts were advertised in 2021 than at any other point since monitoring began in 2017; these included juveniles listed as pets.
Besides pets, listings advertised wildlife items for use as jewelry, ingredients for traditional medicines, meat for consumption, and live animals for commercial breeding.
Most of the transactions were domestic, but several birds originated in Thailand, and further items were likely destined for China and India. This evidence of cross-border trade is significant from a public health perspective, broadening the risks of pathogen transmission beyond a regional scale, the report noted.
Trade poses risks to public health
Posts advertising live civets and pangolins as wild meat, as well as posts referring to their commercial breeding potential are a particular concern, argue the report authors. Civets were an intermediate host of the virus that caused the 2002 SARS outbreak, while pangolins have been shown to carry coronaviruses related to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
In March 2022, scientists identified coronaviruses in pangolins confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam — the first time they had been found in pangolins outside of China. The findings, published in Frontiers in Public Health, confirm concerns that viruses with “the potential to evolve and emerge as serious human pathogens are moving with wildlife as they are transported, bought, and sold along wildlife supply chains,” Amanda Fine, director of One Health at the Wildlife Conservation Society and co-author of the Vietnam study, told Mongabay in an email.
The wildlife trade in itself is a “risky business,” according to Fine. She added that limited supply chain regulation of most wild species traded in Southeast Asia, whether online or through public markets, means that “there is generally limited information on where the species came from, how it was transported, or how long it has been held in captivity.”
In addition to the risk of pathogen spread, the ease with which sellers and buyers can complete illegal transactions via social media is an issue that must be addressed, Martin said. In Myanmar, most of the trading took place in plain sight, he said, with traders and buyers openly discussing sales and shipping wildlife items on public buses, with little or no attempt to conceal the cargo.
The flagrant nature of the trade suggests traders are typically able to buy and sell with impunity due to the anonymity of Facebook, coupled with the limited capacity of authorities to control the trade, the report says.
“This weak enforcement is partly due to gaps in Myanmar’s wildlife laws, particularly when it comes to online sales, but also to a lack of resources and the low priority assigned to tackling wildlife crime by successive governments. The political crisis that erupted in February 2021 has further hampered environmental regulation and law enforcement,” the report says. The country’s 2021-2025 action plan to counter illegal wildlife trade is yet to be implemented.
Toward improved collaboration
In the absence of effective law enforcement, conservation groups in Myanmar and globally have been able to take action against online wildlife crime through the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, an initiative formed by the NGOs IFAW, TRAFFIC and WWF in collaboration with online platforms in 2018.
So far, the coalition has removed more than 11 million posts linked to the wildlife trade on platforms ranging from Facebook to eBay to Alibaba. But critics of the initiative say its approach is limited and that it’s unable to keep pace with the burgeoning online trade. One significant problem noted during the Myanmar research is that previously removed traders rapidly reemerged in newly created groups.
To tackle these issues, the report calls on social media and e-commerce companies to develop automatic detection tools capable of blocking or flagging posts advertising illegal wildlife and to do more to monitor their platforms and take swift action.
The WWF report also calls for greater involvement and collaboration from the private sector, law enforcement agencies, civil society and local communities to disrupt the illegal wildlife trade at all stages and increase awareness of the health risks posed by illegally traded wildlife. Online platforms have a responsibility “to share information with local authorities, as well as with private logistics and transport companies, that could aid seizures,” the report says.
“The very nature of the online trade itself transcends boundaries, so there should be a collaborative approach,” Martin said. “Hopefully, [through this report] the different stakeholders … will notice the wider issue within the region and look to review and re-strategize to build the responses that can address this issue.”
Banner image: Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), considered to be potential vectors in passing zoonotic, or animal-borne, diseases to humans are traded online in Myanmar.
Nga, N. T., Latinne, A., Thuy, H. B., Long, N. V., Ngoc, P. T., Anh, N. T., … Fine, A. E. (2022). Evidence of SARS-CoV-2 related coronaviruses circulating in Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica) confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade in Viet Nam. Frontiers in Public Health, 10. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2022.826116
Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11
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